How Nintendo’s New Design Philosophy Betrays Mario Odyssey

As 2017 closed out and gaming outlets began to reveal their top 10 lists, many gamers knew the #1 and #2 slots were Nintendo’s. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey are, according to Metacritic, the highest rated games of the year, both earning aggregate scores of 97. The Switch’s hybrid nature as a handheld/home console has allowed Nintendo to revamp their design philosophy into something I’m sloppily coining as, “Long-Term Short-Term Engagements.” (shortened to LT-ST) Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey both thrive on a gameplay loop that heavily favors a high volume of small and rewarding activities. While this super-concentrated loop pays dividends for both games in a first playthrough, it robs Mario Odyssey of the timelessness of the plumber’s more focused collectathon outings of 64 and Sunshine.

Beholden to the LT-ST philosophy, Odyssey’s shotgun approach to objective-design results in a very limited means of testing players. Upon entering any given world in Odyssey players can expect one path through the required objectives: 1) Introduce players to the world’s marquee transformation. 2) Use basic challenges to ensure the player has some grasp on how to platform as the new creature. 3) Use the transformation in a boss fight. Synthesis and creativity are rarely required to complete any objectives outside of the post-game. Because this loop is so predictable through the base game, most of the joy of the game comes from mining the depth of the platforming sandbox. And to be fair, this is a diverse and expressive set of options. In the meat of the experience, somewhere between 200 and 500 Moons, it is easy to understand where all the 10/10 scores come from. Understanding how many ways Mario can get around the colorful and expressive worlds is enough to make gamers of any skill level smile. The problem comes when players start to hit the bottom of the box.

The sheer joy of having reward after reward heaped onto the player is, ultimately, a fleeting one. In my experience most Moons take between 30 seconds to 2 minutes to collect, with the “story” Moon objectives sometimes taking slightly longer, maybe 5 minutes, especially if players are forced to confront a boss. These super short and intense bursts of action translate incredibly well to the LT-ST philosophy. Having tightly designed micro-challenges allow the shortest sessions with the game to still feel rewarding while slowly chipping away at an ultimate goal of 999 Moons for 100% completion. But somewhere along the journey the dopamine stops hitting as hard. The road to 999 becomes arduous, as each Moon turns into a simple box to tick on a list that seemingly never ends.

The extreme difficulty variance from Moon to Moon is the ultimate killer of Odyssey’s potential to attain the timelessness of 64 and Sunshine. Players need as little as 124 Moons to unlock the final Bowser fight. This may seem like a ton of Moons, but in actuality a player needs only to engage with 12% of Odyssey’s content to roll the credits. With most Moons taking such minimal commitment to the game’s sandbox of options, the base Odyssey experience is a breeze to finish. Stacked up against previous Mario collectathons, it becomes easy to see how the LT-ST philosophy pulls the rug out from under Odyssey’s feet.

Given that Mario 64 requires a minimum of 70/120 Stars to enter the final level, mastery could reasonably be expected of the player moving into the end-game. In Sunshine, while players only need 50/120 Shines to enter the final level, the conditions to unlock the final bowser fight requires players to have 6 Shines from every level. Players must demonstrate mastery of mechanics in the later levels to complete the game, rather than simply zeroing in on the easiest objectives in the earlier worlds. The smaller overall objective pool allows the designers deft control over the difficulty curve. Odyssey, on the other hand, despite the depth allowed by its mechanics, has almost none of the focus that made many of the objectives in 64 and Sunshine iconic. Many gamers will never forget “The Manta Storm” and “Eely-Mouth’s Dentist” in Sunshine, or jumping into Tick-Tock Clock at exactly 12 to freeze the platforms in 64. Odyssey, with its overload of objectives, so thoroughly dilutes the impact of the game’s “core” path as to rob it of all replayability. Nothing illustrates this point more perfectly than looking at the speed-running scenes for 64 and Sunshine compared to Odyssey. Where an optimized 100% run of 64 or Sunshine can provide a riveting ~2 hour viewing experience to anyone with a cursory understanding of video games, viewers will find it impossible to stay on the edge of their seats for the 12hr57min world record run of Odyssey.

With Mario Odyssey, Nintendo manages to miss the forest for the trees. Classic collectathons like Banjo-Kazooie, Mario 64 and Sunshine, are classics not because of the number of objectives, but the joy of the journey to each one. Breath of the Wild demonstrates the success of LT-ST philosophy because it uses its titanic 120 shrines and 900 korok seed collection activities to spice up the A-B exploration offered by the quests. Odyssey relies purely on its monstrous checklist. As players move from the shallow requirements of the base experience into the post-game, ticking these boxes becomes less and less rewarding even moving into infuriating. Completing an intense platforming challenge only to be given the same reward that you’re given for an action as simple as long-jumping over a gap is demoralizing. The final challenge in the game, unlocked after obtaining 500 moons, is a grueling 15 minute long platforming gauntlet. For its completion players only receive a Tri-Moon, worth less than 1% of the path to 100%.

No matter the Moon, no matter the challenge, it always feels like filling a bathtub one drop at a time. Ironically, the only time players are awarded with a huge shot of moons at once is from the achievement Toad in the game’s secret world. When I got here I was awarded with a whopping 60 moons at once. Right now my file is sitting at about 540 Moons, and while I mostly loved my time getting to this point, I don’t think I’ll ever return to the game. The idea that I need a whopping 450 Moons to finish my collection is enough to keep this game on the shelf forever.

Mario Odyssey is, ultimately, a game much closer to Breath of the Wild than it is to any of Mario’s previous outings. Breath of the Wild flourishes in its new design space because it succeeds at mining the core of the Zelda experience — an epic quest in a world that is breathtaking in how fully realized it is, that is equally satisfying to tackle in bits or chunks. Mario Odyssey seems to have all the makings of his most legendary outings: The colorful world, the joyous music, the sheer fun of play, are all there, but they lack a backbone. Quantity is traded for focus, resulting in a much less rewarding gaming experience. Odyssey is a mutation rather than an evolution. I hope for the future of Mario on Switch, Nintendo can shirk this imposter syndrome and create an experience that is meaty, challenging, and as endlessly creative as they’ve demonstrated it can be.

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